Faith, Crime, & Punishment Cherie Harder
Monday, October 31, 2011


What causes a person to change?

It is a question pondered by parents, pastors, politicians, educators, therapists, physicians — and of course, Oprah. From twelve-step programs, public awareness campaigns, and management techniques, to the promise of “statecraft as soulcraft” virtually every occupational sector offers ways of encouraging and equipping people to identify, address, and eliminate their demons and diseases. There are few concerns as pressing or as practical as the formation — or reformation — of character, and few tasks as difficult.

And nowhere is the issue of character reformation more urgent, or the stakes higher, than in the realm of crime and punishment. The extent of those affected is extraordinary: in the past three decades, the US prison population has increased nearly five-fold. Over seven million Americans are imprisoned or on probation or parole. Some studies have suggested that as many as two million children have a parent behind bars. And every day, around 2,000 prisoners (or over 700,000 per year) are released from prison to rejoin society.

In the matter of character reformation, prison cannot be a neutral experience. The trauma, stigma, denial of freedom, and social norms of imprisonment will either school a convict in new forms of pathology, or propel him down a road to change. In general, while incarceration may be essential for public safety, the effect on those imprisoned has been anything but rehabilitative — released prisoners typically re-enter society less equipped for life than when they entered, as demonstrated by the high rates of recidivism, and the fact that the risk of death is more than three times as high, and the risk of death of by overdose almost 13 times as high, for a released prisoner as it is for the average citizen.

Identifying and encouraging what works in reforming lives and character is thus an urgent matter of the public good. And one of the great conundrums of the criminal justice system is how ineffective the vast majority of programs are at encouraging long-term change.

A bright spot amidst such bleakness has been the extraordinary stories of transformation of once-hardened lives that have come from faith-based prison interventions, such as those sponsored by Prison Fellowship and various churches. And a new work by renowned criminologist and researcher Byron Johnson, entitled More God, Less Crime: Why Faith Matters and How It Could Matter More, presents a valuable contribution to the public debate by presenting compelling and comprehensive evidence that religious practice and programs help prevent crime, reduce recidivism, and promote civic engagement — and that the results are empirically demonstrable, significant, and replicable.

Johnson asserts that “Religion is a powerful antidote to crime,” noting that “faith-motivated individuals, faith-based organizations, and the transforming power of faith itself are proven keys in reducing crime and improving the effectiveness of our criminal justice system.” He also provides a review of over 270 published studies on the impact of religion on crime, and concludes that religion also helps reduce drug use, teen violence, gang activity, recidivism, domestic violence, and other forms of pathology. While many “jailhouse conversions” may be suspect or self-serving, substantiated drops in crime and increases in positive civic behavior are quite the opposite.

But if such is true, why aren’t there more partnerships between prisons and faith-based groups? Johnson hypothesizes that the problem lies with both church and state. Confusion about the proper role of partnerships between prisons and churches, combined with a reflexive suspicion, in some academic quarters, of religion and faith-based programs has hindered understanding and collaboration. In addition, Johnson notes that the resistance of many religious organizations to scholarly analysis of their methods and results is a significant deterrent to public awareness of and recognition of their effectiveness.

On Wednesday, we’ll host an Evening Conversation with Byron Johnson to hear more about his findings, and the demonstrable power of faith in transforming even the most hardened characters, equipping the once-violent to take up a new life of connection, responsibility, and hope. We hope you will join us!




Cherie Harder